15 Generalized Reciprocity Examples

generalized reciprocity examples and definition

Generalized reciprocity is when a person provides goods or services to another person without the expectation of an immediate return.

Although there may be an expectation of reciprocation, not always, and if there is, no set timeframe is in place.

In some situations, the gesture is considered an act of charity.There is no expectation of reciprocation from the other person. This form of generalized reciprocity is altruistic. The giver receives a benefit in the form of feeling pride in helping others.

Generalized Reciprocity Examples

  • Thomas and his sisters have pooled their money to buy their father a table saw for his birthday.  
  • Alison works at a soup kitchen during the holidays. Although she doesn’t get paid, the reward of helping others is all she needs.
  • Mika has agreed to help her friend with her term paper even though she is quite busy with her own schoolwork.         
  • Mr. and Mrs. Williams have adopted two children and love and care for them as much as their biological child.
  • Kumar let his best friend borrow his car for a week while his was in the shop getting repaired.  
  • The Abimbola family always donate their old clothes to the local charity.  
  • Janelle is always letting her sister borrow her clothes for job interviews.   
  • Juson has worked every weekend for free in his brother’s start-up coffee shop for more than a year.  
  • Javier is paying for his younger brother’s textbooks. He knows they are expensive and he will do anything to help his family.    
  • Aunt Joan is sure to buy several boxes of Girl Scout cookies from her neighbor every summer even though she doesn’t like them much.   

Case Studies and Research Basis

1. Dairy Queen Drive-Thru

You never know when one random act of kindness is going to take on a life of its own. In this article, Alisha Ebrahimji from CNN reports on a story about a Dairy Queen drive-thru in Brainerd, Minnesota in which one customer’s act of generosity created a chain of kindness.

As the story goes, one gentleman in the drive-thru offered to pay for the customer’s meal behind him.

This set off a chain of generalized reciprocity that apparently lasted for nearly three days and over 900 cars.

Heidi Bruse, one of the many customers involved, told CNN that:

“During times like these it kind of restores your faith in humanity a little. The way the world is now you see a lot of anger, tension, and selfish behavior. What we witnessed was pure kindness and it was a breath of fresh air really.”

2. The Reciprocity Ring™

In a capitalist economy, competition among individuals is usually perceived as a zero-sum game. There are winners and there are losers. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of inhibition towards helping others.

However, from an organizational perspective, employees helping each other can lead to greater efficiency, enhanced productivity, and ultimately, increased profit.

This is why companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, IBM, Boeing, and Citigroup have all implemented a Reciprocity Ring™.

In short, a group within the organization gets together for the sole purpose of helping one of the members. It could be something personal or professional in nature.

The situation is presented to the group and then participants brainstorm ways to help. This often includes offering to introduce the person in need to others that can help or providing assistance directly.

As reported in Forbes, Wayne Baker, co-creator of the Reciprocity Ring™ with his wife Cheryl, explains that:

“The Reciprocity Ring is built around asking for and giving help. It taps the collective knowledge, networks and energy of a group to meet each person’s request.”

3. Generalized Reciprocity In Parent-Child Relations

There may be no better example of generalized reciprocity than the sacrifices that parents make for their children. Of course, there is no expectation of immediate return; it is what parents are supposed to do.

But as the parents reach an elderly age, it certainly would be nice if they could count on their offspring to help when needed.

Silverstein et al. (2002) analyzed data from a longitudinal study at the University of Southern California. The study involved over 2,000 participants that spanned three generations.

The main question the researchers wanted to know was: will children reciprocate the help they received from their parents when the time comes.

Two main findings are reassuring:

  1. “…the return gained by parents is proportional to their initial investment…” (p. S10).
  2. “when the early parent–child relationship was emotionally distant, had no time commitment, and involved no financial support—the amount of support provided to parents increases as they age” (p. S10).

The researchers explain that the second finding above is a form of altruistic reciprocity.

4. Paying It Forward

Typically speaking, the term “pay it forward” is used in the context of helping another human being, often someone that is unknown and is unlikely to be able to repay that generosity.

In the words of Gray et al. (2014) “Paying kindness forward— or “generalized reciprocity”— operates according to a simple maxim: “Help anyone, if helped by someone.”

However, on any given day, a person may be the recipient of kindness, or harmful treatment. Therefore, Gray and colleagues were interested in determining which kind of behavior (generosity, greed, or equality) is most likely to be paid forward.

Research participants were on the receiving end of greed, equality, or generosity during a game simulation. They were then given an opportunity to provide another person with resources.

The results were not entirely uplifting:

“True generosity is paid forward less than both greed and equality. Equality leads to equality and greed leads to greed…” (p. 252).

Of course, one must take the results with a grain of salt. As the researchers readily acknowledge, how people behave in a laboratory setting and in real life can be quite different.

The study does lack a certain degree of external validity.

How to Promote A Culture Of Reciprocity

Many of the world’s largest and most successful companies try to create a positive work culture. This includes communication training, encouraging collegiality, and, trying to foster a culture of reciprocity.

As Baker and Bulkley (2014) explain:

“Helping another employee is seen as work that is outside of an employee’s job description and role, but creating a work culture where reciprocity and cooperation are integrated into the workplace can elevate a work environment” (p. 4).

Baker and Bulkley offer several suggestions on how to create an atmosphere where colleagues pay it forward and help each other.

For example, they mention Google as offering a unique system where employees can give bonuses to colleagues, who then receive additional funds to pay forward to a third employee.

Google not only has a Peer-to-Peer bonus system, but also an Open-Source Peer Bonus program where bonuses can be given to outside personnel.  

Other Types of Reciprocity

There are several other types of reciprocity: generalized, negative, and positive.

Reciprocity TypeDefinitionExample
Negative ReciprocityA form of exchange where one person gets more out of an exchange than the other. One individual clearly benefits more and the other gives more.Jim always gives a cheap birthday gift to his brother even though his brother always buys something very nice for him.
Positive ReciprocityA form of exchange where one party gives something to another with the expectation of receiving something of roughly equal value in return.Giving a friend a gift and expecting them to give you a gift of similar value in the future. Positive reciprocity can be balanced or generalized.
Balanced ReciprocityA form of exchange where there is an expectation of immediate or specific repayment of roughly equal value.When a person works in the gig economy, they offer their services for a rate they think is fair. The people who hire them agree to the rate, get the work done, and pay them immediately.
Generalized ReciprocityA form of exchange where there is no expectation of immediate or specific repayment, but rather a sense of trust and obligation to reciprocate in the future.Helping a neighbor move without expecting anything in return, but knowing that they will likely help you when you’re in trouble in the future.


Generalized reciprocity is when one person provides another with goods or services without the expectation of immediate reciprocation. This often occurs in close-knit social circles such as family and friends.

Generalized reciprocity can also take a “pay it forward” form where a person gives something to someone they may not know at all. In this case, there is no expectation of reciprocity.

Instances of pay it forward sometimes surface in the media as strangers help each other for the sole purpose of being kind to others. Occasionally, this chain of kindness can take on a life of its own and last for days.

Other forms of generalized reciprocity are when offspring help their elderly parents after decades of being recipients of great parental sacrifice and devotion.

Even large corporations understand the benefits of generalized reciprocity. Some companies try to create a work culture where employees help each other.


Baker, W. E., & Bulkley, N. (2014). Paying it forward vs. rewarding reputation: Mechanisms of generalized reciprocity. Organization Science, 25(5), 1493-1510.

Chuan, A., & Zhang, H. (2021). Generalized reciprocity: Theory and experiment. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Ebrahimji, A. (2020, December). Over 900 cars paid for each other’s meals at a Dairy Queen drive-thru in Minnesota. [Online; posted 09-December-2020]

Grant, Adam. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Viking Adult.

Gray, K., Ward, A. F., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Paying it forward: Generalized reciprocity and the limits of generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 247.

Salazar, L. R. (2015). The negative reciprocity process in marital relationships: A literature review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 24, 113-119.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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